For the last three days, I’ve been attending a climate-change conference for journalists at Ohio State University. There were plenty of science sessions and even some visits to labs that were quite cool (as in -30 °F). But one of the more provocative talks focused not on glaciology, sea-surface temperatures, or atmospheric aerosols; it probed social science to try and explain why climate science remains apparently irrelevant to many people.

Matthew Nisbet of American University pointed to analyses of recent opinion-polling data that indicate a large share of Americans (including a disproportionate share of Republicans) are not swayed by the steady stream of data indicating that global warming is underway and that the magnitude of warming is being amplified by human activities.

He cited data from a host of sources, but especially the paper that I cited in my Sept. 22 blog. Among other things, this paper reported finding that the more educated a Republican was, the less likely he or she was to believe climate science.

What’s behind this counterintuitive observation can only be guessed at. Nisbet’s theory: People have too many choices about where they’re going to get their news that they may miss the most honest accounts.

Thirty years ago, he reminds us, three networks ruled the television airwaves. Before and after prime-time sitcoms and drama, people encountered news. And even those who weren’t immensely curious about the politics and economics dominating their communities tuned in if only to get the weather report or sports highlights. Most also glanced at their local daily paper.

In other words, homes across America were pretty uniformly getting at least a taste of news every day, and roughly the same news — from conventional news outlets.

We now live in a very different world. Most homes receive access to hundreds of TV channels via cable or satellite transmissions. Those not interested in news at dinner time or bedtime can instead watch the Simpsons, music videos or westerns. Viewers wanting sports or weather tend to tune into dedicated networks delivering round-the-clock coverage of just that.

And news junkies need no longer settle for twice or thrice daily 15 to 30 minute broadcasts. They can now surf hosts of channels that deliver news or news analyses virtually nonstop. However, Nisbet points out, many of these newsy venues don’t report news so much as ruminate on it, spin news findings and rant.

People who tilt to the left have their choice of broadcast venues that support their views. Those whose political values lean to the right can choose from a mix of stations that reinforce more conservative values. Even libertarians, socialists and “mavericks” of other stripes can find public affairs outlets consistent with their principles.

So if people have preconceived notions of what should — or shouldn’t — be true, they can find one or more networks to reinforce that bias. And there are even more opportunities to cherry pick interpretations of science and other news developments on the Web (where interpretive blogs far outweigh journalistic accounts attempting to exhibit balance).

What about newspapers? Industry losses suggest these news outlets are becoming increasingly irrelevant as people eschew such staid, long-form journalism in favor of shorter and snappier highlights.

Large segments of society can therefore tune out the news — or news that irritates, explains Nisbet. In this environment, he says, there’s no way to ensure that large segments of society learn about particular science developments — or hear them in ways that reflect how researchers initially portrayed their data.

The take-home lesson, says Nisbet, a professor in AU’s School of Communication, is that to reach increasingly reluctant eyes and ears, reporters must “frame climate change” in ways that will make it “personally relevant” to their audience. Perhaps, he argues, findings should be delivered in ways that would fit with the world view of spiritualists, of fundamentalist Christians, of free-market advocates, of economic opportunists or some other demographic slice of the American pie.

Many participants at the Ohio State meeting — both journalists and scientists alike — appeared to accept Nisbet’s first premise: that the world has changed to the point where assumptions can no longer reliably be made about what interpretation of climate science people will be exposed to. What conference goers tended to challenge was Nisbet’s contention that the news media should therefore “frame” climate news in different ways, depending on the audience. And that those frames should be tailored to the attitudinal filters of each audience segment.

A number of other journalists and I found this idea to be uncomfortably manipulative. Even devious, maybe. I’m sure that’s not how Nisbet meant it, but this “framing” approach could certainly lead us down that slippery slope.

Scientists at the meeting responded to the talk in an almost awed horror. Several came up to me asking what hope we had of convincing people that global warming was real if the data they were painstakingly compiling and vetting through peer review would be twisted by spin doctors or simply ignored.

Like I said: The talk was provocative. And it’s something all of us should think about because although the focus of this conference was climate, the same polarizing disconnect between science and news reports is developing in a number of other controversial areas as well. Such as over cloning, genetically modified organisms, animal testing, transgender identification, and the safety or efficacy of alternatives to conventional medicine (such as herbal therapy).

Science is not the end-all. But it makes a sound beginning for informed public policy. If it can be believed. What will scientists and their public voice — journalists — have to do to restore faith in science?

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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